I got up, feeling worse than I'd ever felt in my life. "Come on," I said. "Let's see what happens."
As if there was any doubt about what was bound to happen.
We stepped out onto the porch and over to the rail. Behind us, I heard Menner come out too. I looked over my shoulder. He'd wrapped a towel around his head. Blood was leaking through it. He was looking at Buck, hating him clear through.
The street was deserted except for Buck standing about twenty feet away, and, at the far end, Sheriff Ben Randolph coming slowly toward him, putting one foot ahead of the other in the dust.
A few men were standing on porches, pressed back against the walls, mostly near doors. Nobody was sitting now--they were ready to groundhog if lead started flying wild.
"God damn it," I said in a low, savage voice. "Ben's too good a man to get kilt this way. By a punk kid with some crazy psychowhosis way of handling a gun."
I felt the professor's level eyes on me, and turned to look at him.
"Why," he said, "doesn't a group of you get together and face him down? Ten guns against his one. He'd have to surrender."
"No, he wouldn't," I said. "That ain't the way it works. He'd just dare any of us to be the first to try and stop him--and none of us would take him up on it. A group like that don't mean anything--it'd be each man against Buck Tarrant, and none of us good enough."
"I see," the professor said softly.
"God...." I clenched my fists so hard they hurt. "I wish we could think his gun right back into the holster or something!"
Ben and Buck were about forty feet apart now. Ben was coming on steadily, his hand over his gunbutt. He was a good man with a gun, Ben--nobody around these parts had dared tackle him for a long time. But he was out-classed now, and he knew it. I guess he was just hoping that Buck's first shot or two wouldn't kill him, and that he could place a good one himself before Buck let loose any more.
But Buck was a damn good shot. He just wouldn't miss.
The professor was staring at Buck with a strange look in his eyes.
"He should be stopped," he said.
"Stop him, then," I said sourly.
"After all," he mused, "if the ability to perform telekinesis lies dormant in all of us, and is released by strong faith and desire to accomplish something that can be accomplished only by that means--then our desire to stop him might be able to counter his desire to--"
"Damn you and your big words," I said bitterly.
"It was your idea," the professor said, still looking at Buck. "What you said about thinking his gun back into its holster--after all, we are two to his one--"
I turned around and stared at him, really hearing him for the first time. "Yeah, that's right--I said that! My God ... do you think we could do it?"
"We can try," he said. "We know it can be done, and evidently that is nine-tenths of the battle. He can do it, so we should be able to. We must want him not to more than he wants to."
"Lord," I said, "I want him not to, all right...."
Ben and Buck were about twenty feet apart now, and Ben stopped.
His voice was tired when he said, "Any time, Buck."
"You're a hell of a sheriff," Buck sneered. "You're a no-good bastard."
"Cuss me out," Ben said. "Don't hurt me none. I'll be ready when you start talking with guns."
"I'm ready now, beanpole," Buck grinned. "You draw first, huh?"
"Think of his gun!" the professor said in a fierce whisper. "Try to grab it with your mind--break his aim--pull it away from him--you know it can be done! Think, think--"
Ben Randolph had never in anyone's knowledge drawn first against a man. But now he did, and I guess nobody could blame him.
He slapped leather, his face already dead--and Buck's Peacemaker was in his hand-- And me and the professor were standing like statues on the porch of the Once Again, thinking at that gun, glaring at it, fists clenched, our breath rasping in our throats.
The gun appeared in Buck's hand, and wobbled just as he slipped hammer. The bullet sprayed dust at Ben's feet.
Ben's gun was halfway out.
Buck's gunbarrel pointed down at the ground, and he was trying to lift it so hard his hand got white. He drove a bullet into the dust at his own feet, and started to whine.
Ben's gun was up and aiming.
Buck shot himself in the foot.
Then Ben shot him once in the right elbow, once in the right shoulder. Buck screamed and dropped his gun and threw out his arms, and Ben, who was a thorough man, put a bullet through his right hand, and another one on top of it.
Buck sat in the dust and flapped blood all around, and bawled when we came to get him.
The professor and I told Ben Randolph what had happened, and nobody else. I think he believed us.
Buck spent two weeks in the town jail, and then a year in the state pen for pulling on Randolph, and nobody's seen him now for six years. Don't know what happened to him, or care much. I reckon he's working as a cowhand someplace--anyway, he sends his mother money now and then, so he must have tamed down some and growed up some too.
While he was in the town jail, the professor talked to him a lot--the professor delayed his trip just to do it.
One night he told me, "Tarrant can't do anything like that again. Not at all, even with his left hand. The gunfight destroyed his faith in his ability to do it--or most of it, anyway. And I finished the job, I guess, asking all my questions. I guess you can't think too much about that sort of thing."
The professor went on to San Francisco, where he's doing some interesting experiments. Or trying to. Because he has the memory of what happened that day--but, like Buck Tarrant, not the ability to do anything like that any more. He wrote me a couple times, and it seems that ever since that time he's been absolutely unable to do any telekinesis. He's tried a thousand times and can't even move a feather.
So he figures it was really me alone who saved Ben's life and stopped Buck in his tracks.
I wonder. Maybe the professor just knows too much not to be some skeptical, even with what he saw. Maybe the way he looks at things and tries to find reasons for them gets in the way of his faith.
Anyway, he wants me to come to San Francisco and get experimented on. Maybe someday I will. Might be fun, if I can find time off from my job.
I got a lot of faith, you see. What I see, I believe. And when Ben retired last year, I took over his job as sheriff--because I'm the fastest man with a gun in these parts. Or, actually, in the world. Probably if I wasn't the peaceable type, I'd be famous or something.
by Roger Dee
"Any problem posed by one group of human beings can be resolved by any other group." That's what the Handbook said. But did that include primitive humans? Or the Bees? Or a ...
The cool green disk of Alphard Six on the screen was infinitely welcome after the arid desolation and stinking swamplands of the inner planets, an airy jewel of a world that might have been designed specifically for the hard-earned month of rest ahead. Navigator Farrell, youngest and certainly most impulsive of the three-man Terran Reclamations crew, would have set the Marco Four down at once but for the greater caution of Stryker, nominally captain of the group, and of Gibson, engineer, and linguist. Xavier, the ship's little mechanical, had--as was usual and proper--no voice in the matter.
"Reconnaissance spiral first, Arthur," Stryker said firmly. He chuckled at Farrell's instant scowl, his little eyes twinkling and his naked paunch quaking over the belt of his shipboard shorts. "Chapter One, Subsection Five, Paragraph Twenty-seven: No planetfall on an unreclaimed world shall be deemed safe without proper--"
Farrell, as Stryker had expected, interrupted with characteristic impatience. "Do you sleep with that damned Reclamations Handbook, Lee? Alphard Six isn't an unreclaimed world--it was never colonized before the Hymenop invasion back in 3025, so why should it be inhabited now?"
Gibson, who for four hours had not looked up from his interminable chess game with Xavier, paused with a beleaguered knight in one blunt brown hand.
"No point in taking chances," Gibson said in his neutral baritone. He shrugged thick bare shoulders, his humorless black-browed face unmoved, when Farrell included him in his scowl. "We're two hundred twenty-six light-years from Sol, at the old limits of Terran expansion, and there's no knowing what we may turn up here. Alphard's was one of the first systems the Bees took over. It must have been one of the last to be abandoned when they pulled back to 70 Ophiuchi."
"And I think you live for the day," Farrell said acidly, "when we'll stumble across a functioning dome of live, buzzing Hymenops. Damn it, Gib, the Bees pulled out a hundred years ago, before you and I were born--neither of us ever saw a Hymenop, and never will!"
"But I saw them," Stryker said. "I fought them for the better part of the century they were here, and I learned there's no predicting nor understanding them. We never knew why they came nor why they gave up and left. How can we know whether they'd leave a rear-guard or booby trap here?"
He put a paternal hand on Farrell's shoulder, understanding the younger man's eagerness and knowing that their close-knit team would have been the more poorly balanced without it.
"Gib's right," he said. He nearly added as usual. "We're on rest leave at the moment, yes, but our mission is still to find Terran colonies enslaved and abandoned by the Bees, not to risk our necks and a valuable Reorientations ship by landing blind on an unobserved planet. We're too close already. Cut in your shields and find a reconnaissance spiral, will you?"
Grumbling, Farrell punched coordinates on the Ringwave board that lifted the Marco Four out of her descent and restored the bluish enveloping haze of her repellors.
Stryker's caution was justified on the instant. The speeding streamlined shape that had flashed up unobserved from below swerved sharply and exploded in a cataclysmic blaze of atomic fire that rocked the ship wildly and flung the three men to the floor in a jangling roar of alarms.
"So the Handbook tacticians knew what they were about," Stryker said minutes later. Deliberately he adopted the smug tone best calculated to sting Farrell out of his first self-reproach, and grinned when the navigator bristled defensively. "Some of their enjoinders seem a little stuffy and obvious at times, but they're eminently sensible."
When Farrell refused to be baited Stryker turned to Gibson, who was busily assessing the damage done to the ship's more fragile equipment, and to Xavier, who searched the planet's surface with the ship's magnoscanner. The Marco Four, Ringwave generators humming gently, hung at the moment just inside the orbit of Alphard Six's single dun-colored moon.
Gibson put down a test meter with an air of finality.
"Nothing damaged but the Zero Interval Transfer computer. I can realign that in a couple of hours, but it'll have to be done before we hit Transfer again."
Stryker looked dubious. "What if the issue is forced before the ZIT unit is repaired? Suppose they come up after us?"
"I doubt that they can. Any installation crudely enough equipped to trust in guided missiles is hardly likely to have developed efficient space craft."
Stryker was not reassured.
"That torpedo of theirs was deadly enough," he said. "And its nature reflects the nature of the people who made it. Any race vicious enough to use atomic charges is too dangerous to trifle with." Worry made comical creases in his fat, good-humored face. "We'll have to find out who they are and why they're here, you know."
"They can't be Hymenops," Gibson said promptly. "First, because the Bees pinned their faith on Ringwave energy fields, as we did, rather than on missiles. Second, because there's no dome on Six."
"There were three empty domes on Five, which is a desert planet," Farrell pointed out. "Why didn't they settle Six? It's a more habitable world."
Gibson shrugged. "I know the Bees always erected domes on every planet they colonized, Arthur, but precedent is a fallible tool. And it's even more firmly established that there's no possibility of our rationalizing the motivations of a culture as alien as the Hymenops'--we've been over that argument a hundred times on other reclaimed worlds."
"But this was never an unreclaimed world," Farrell said with the faint malice of one too recently caught in the wrong. "Alphard Six was surveyed and seeded with Terran bacteria around the year 3000, but the Bees invaded before we could colonize. And that means we'll have to rule out any resurgent colonial group down there, because Six never had a colony in the beginning."
"The Bees have been gone for over a hundred years," Stryker said. "Colonists might have migrated from another Terran-occupied planet."
"We've touched at every inhabited world in this sector, Lee, and not one surviving colony has developed space travel on its own. The Hymenops had a hundred years to condition their human slaves to ignorance of everything beyond their immediate environment--the motives behind that conditioning usually escape us, but that's beside the point--and they did a thorough job of it. The colonists have had no more than a century of freedom since the Bees pulled out, and four generations simply isn't enough time for any subjugated culture to climb from slavery to interstellar flight."
Stryker made a padding turn about the control room, tugging unhappily at the scanty fringe of hair the years had left him.
"If they're neither Hymenops nor resurgent colonists," he said, "then there's only one choice remaining--they're aliens from a system we haven't reached yet, beyond the old sphere of Terran exploration. We always assumed that we'd find other races out here someday, and that they'd be as different from us in form and motivation as the Hymenops. Why not now?"
Gibson said seriously, "Not probable, Lee. The same objection that rules out the Bees applies to any trans-Alphardian culture--they'd have to be beyond the atomic fission stage, else they'd never have attempted interstellar flight. The Ringwave with its Zero Interval Transfer principle and instantaneous communications applications is the only answer to long-range travel, and if they'd had that they wouldn't have bothered with atomics."
Stryker turned on him almost angrily. "If they're not Hymenops or humans or aliens, then what in God's name are they?"
"Aye, there's the rub," Farrell said, quoting a passage whose aptness had somehow seen it through a dozen reorganizations of insular tongue and a final translation to universal Terran. "If they're none of those three, we've only one conclusion left. There's no one down there at all--we're victims of the first joint hallucination in psychiatric history."
Stryker threw up his hands in surrender. "We can't identify them by theorizing, and that brings us down to the business of first-hand investigation. Who's going to bell the cat this time?"
"I'd like to go," Gibson said at once. "The ZIT computer can wait."
Stryker vetoed his offer as promptly. "No, the ZIT comes first. We may have to run for it, and we can't set up a Transfer jump without the computer. It's got to be me or Arthur."
Farrell felt the familiar chill of uneasiness that inevitably preceded this moment of decision. He was not lacking in courage, else the circumstances under which he had worked for the past ten years--the sometimes perilous, sometimes downright charnel conditions left by the fleeing Hymenop conquerors--would have broken him long ago. But that same hard experience had honed rather than blunted the edge of his imagination, and the prospect of a close-quarters stalking of an unknown and patently hostile force was anything but attractive.
"You two did the field work on the last location," he said. "It's high time I took my turn--and God knows I'd go mad if I had to stay inship and listen to Lee memorizing his Handbook subsections or to Gib practicing dead languages with Xavier."
Stryker laughed for the first time since the explosion that had so nearly wrecked the Marco Four.
"Good enough. Though it wouldn't be more diverting to listen for hours to you improvising enharmonic variations on the Lament for Old Terra with your accordion."